CSUEB political scientist’s mobile app fosters a more informed electorate
BY KIM GIRARD
Elizabeth Bergman has spent the past decade thinking about how to get more people to vote. Smart phones may contribute to the solution, suggests the Cal State East Bay faculty member.
“We have a problem with turnout in this country, especially with some demographic groups,” says Bergman, a political science professor at Cal State East Bay. “Young people turn out at lower rates. Hispanics and minorities vote at lower rates.”
Bergman says she suspects one cause for low turnout among some groups is that many people aren’t well informed — and can’t be blamed for not scouring the voter pamphlet that arrives in the mail 40 days before an election.
“Turnout is so bad, because people don’t have information when they need it,” says Bergman, who also has recently studied whether voting by mail in San Francisco is accessible to everyone and secure.
Bergman thought mobile phones might provide an option for groups of people who don’t have a lot of time or access to the Internet on a home computer. “My idea was to put this on a phone,” she says. “We wanted the most portable, ubiquitous, accessible form possible.”
VoterGuideNow (voterguidenow.org offers a video of how it works) debuted last year in three California counties: Marin and Santa Cruz, which offered the mobile application in their June and November 2012 elections, and Shasta, which only used the app in June.
Bergman partnered with Las Vegas-based Atwoodz to develop a mobile app for her voter guide that could be used on iPhone and Android devices. Atwoodz built the framework that supports registrars who offer VoterGuideNow, which is the first mobile guide of its kind in the country. Bergman bootstrapped the project with $25,000 and owns the guide. Atwoodz owns the app.
VoterGuideNow includes the same information contained in the official paper voter guide, with candidate biographies and pro and con arguments about federal, state, county and city measures and propositions. Users can skim through the guide by clicking on headlines. The app has a “My Choices” function so you can mark your ballot before election day. “I wanted to bring simplicity to a complex process,” Bergman says.
The app is quick to download, easy to read and makes it simple for users to search the ballot whether on the bus on the way to work or in bed at night.
Marin County Registrar Elaine Ginnold said 969 of the county’s 150,000 voters downloaded the app for the November 2012 election.
The county offered two ways to download VoterGuideNow — through QR codes, a square black-and-white barcode, located on the front of the sample ballot, which voters scan with their cell phone to download the app to their device. Marin also placed ads for VoterGuideNow app on its Facebook page. For the November 2012 election, Marin added information about voter polling places to the mobile application
Marin County boasted the state’s highest turnout in the November 2012 election, (and historically has among the state’s highest voter turnout). It’s hard to say whether the app helped reach the voters who might not have voted otherwise, says Bergman, noting her data pool is too small to make generalizations yet about the app’s effectiveness.
Nonetheless, Ginnold says the county will continue offering the mobile option, which she expects will become more popular in coming elections.
“Our goal is to make the information as easy to get for people as possible,” she says.
“People are now using mobile devices more, so we’re trying to move in that direction as well as put more information on our website. We see it catching on.”
Atwoodz will soon be working on VoterGuideNow version 2.0, making it easier for registrars and voters to use in the next election, says A.J. Pagano,the company’s CEO.
Pagano says he loves the ease of a mobile voter app, which is why he wanted to work on the project. He foresees its use spreading beyond California.
“We’d like to see (the guide) used here,” he says.
One new feature also should enable voters to go green and opt out of receiving a paper ballot.
If the state converted to electronic voter guides, about 500 million sheets of paper, or 60,000 trees, could be spared, according to Bergman, who used an application called treecalculator.com to crunch the numbers. (California has 17 million registered voters. She based her calculation on about 12 million of those voters receiving a 50-page information pamphlet from the state.)
Marin county plans to use the opt out option, Ginnold says.
Bergman would like to expand the number of counties using the app but says she can’t continue funding the project herself, while remaining focused on her core academic research into how voters are disenfranchised.
Counties that are concerned about turnout must make a financial commitment to the app, she says.
While the future of VoterGuideNow isn’t clear, Bergman, who is also a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Institute for the Politics of Inequality, Race and Ethnicity (InSPIRES), believes that any effort to bring more people out to vote is a worthwhile cause.
“This application is one small piece of a larger puzzle,” she says.